Researchers from the drug firm Merck‘s laboratories in New Jersey have shown that an appetite drug appears to significantly reduce fat consumption in rats, increasing hopes that it could become a treatment for obesity in humans.

Published in the journal Nature Medicine, the study shows how the compound acted on receptors in the brain which control appetite and are normally sensitive to the hormone insulin.

When fed to rats on a high fat diet, it reduced their body weight and amounts of fatty tissue, compared to rats not given it. Placed more directly into rat#;s brains, the drug reduced food intake and body weight.

Insulin would seem to offer the promise of an “anti-appetite pill” but the human body breaks it down so little reaches the brain – leaving the Merck scientists to develop a protein that has a similar effect on the receptors as actual insulin but is not broken down and thus can get as far as the brain.

If future tests provide evidence that this “mimetic” molecule, can work in humans as well as in rats, people who are severely overweight could see new hope in weight control.

Obesity is increasingly being seen in terms of a growing modern epidemic throughout many developed countries. Obese consumers risk far higher chances of heart disease, diabetes and other health problems and in England alone, it is responsible for 30,000 deaths every year. Since 1991, global figures show that obesity rates have increased from 12% to 20% of the population.